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Climate Change, Energy Security, and the Arctic Under the Obama Presidency

By Wilfrid Greaves

The United States is an Arctic nation, but the Arctic has usually been an afterthought in the making of government decisions. U.S. security policy has traditionally viewed the region as a line of defense rather than a place to be secured in its own right. However, under President Barack Obama, the Arctic has been identified as an area of national security interest because it is uniquely vulnerable to climate change, plays a role in regulating the global climate, and holds substantial oil and gas deposits. For these reasons, the Arctic is at the intersection of environmental and energy security policies; as the region experiencing the fastest and most transformative environmental changes in the world, it is directly affected by decisions about energy use and curbing greenhouse gases.

This year marks the midpoint of the United States’ term as chair of the Arctic Council, the premier institution for Arctic governance. The U.S. has identified three priorities for its chairmanship: improving economic and living conditions in Arctic communities; Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship; and addressing the impacts of climate change. These goals are consistent with Obama’s second term commitment to fighting climate change, but are also set against the backdrop of his administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy that embraced expanded domestic extraction of fossil fuels. As a result, the Obama administration has been accused of doing both too much and too little to fight climate change and curb fossil fuel extraction and consumption; Obama’s energy and environmental security policies simultaneously mitigate and exacerbate climate change in the Arctic. 

The Arctic and Obama’s Energy and Environmental Security Policies

U.S. national security policy has expanded beyond just military defense; both energy policy and climate change have been brought under the umbrella of national security issues. Obama has used “security talk” to describe U.S. energy needs and climate change since before he became president, but while in office he has employed grave language to describe the threats posed by reliance on fossil fuels and human interference in the climate system. But Obama rarely discusses them in isolation, instead acknowledging energy, economic growth, and the environment as part of a cluster of interrelated security issues. His focus on climate and energy security, in turn, inevitably relates back to the Arctic.

Citing the threats related to global warming, Obama identified the dangerous shortcomings of relying on foreign oil and expanding Arctic drilling in 2006 while still a senator. He advocated for a massive increase in renewable energy production comparable to the national effort required for victory in WWII and the Cold War. He revisited these themes in 2011 in remarks on America’s energy security, in which he again stressed the value of reliable and affordable energy for the U.S. economy, and reiterated the importance of addressing “the climate change that threatens the planet that you [young people] will inherit.” But his position on fossil fuels shifted to emphasize the reduction of foreign oil, calling for an increase in American oil and gas production as a key part of improving the nation’s energy security. He endorsed expanded offshore drilling and positioned U.S. shale gas production as a transition fuel while America “discover[s] and produce[s] cleaner, renewable sources of energy that also produce less carbon pollution, which is threatening our climate.”

Notably, Obama again stated that long-term energy security can only be realized by “permanently reducing our dependence on oil.” He has long emphasized the inter-related dangers of failing to transition to cleaner sources of domestic energy in terms of American jobs, economic growth, energy prices, and environmental protection. But as president he has promoted the short-term economic benefits of expanding domestic hydrocarbon extraction while stipulating the need to eliminating fossil fuel use over the medium- to long-terms.

The same assessment of climate and energy issues informed Obama’s 2015 decision to reject the Keystone XL bitumen pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the U.S. Gulf coast. He situated Keystone XL, and America’s continued reliance on “dirty” sources of energy like the Alberta tar sands, within the context of climate change, listing hazards such as extreme weather, sea-level rise, and access to fresh water. Ultimately, Obama deemed that approving the pipeline “would not serve the national interest of the United States” because “approving this project would have undercut [America’s] global leadership [on climate change]. And that’s the biggest risk we face—not acting.”

Toward the end of this statement, however, Obama made an argument never before heard from a U.S. president or the leader of any major industrialized economy. Anticipating the COP21 climate summit in Paris scheduled for just weeks later, he said: “Ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.” Obama thus accepted the view that a significant portion of fossil fuel reserves must remain undeveloped if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided, and that the long-term goal of climate change policy is the de-carbonization of advanced economies. According to one recent study, globally, one third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and over 80 percent of coal reserves should remain unused in order to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and that “all Arctic [energy] resources should be classified as unburnable.” 

But it is President Obama’s August 2015 keynote address to the GLACIER conference in Alaska that marks his clearest articulation of how climate and energy security intersect in the Arctic. Invoking the current impacts and catastrophic future possibilities of climate change more explicitly than any of his previous statements, Obama listed specific changes already occurring globally and across the Arctic, then detailed the stakes of failing to curb human use of fossil fuels. He painted a dire picture of the future: “Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields no longer growing. Indigenous peoples who can’t carry out traditions that stretch back millennia. Entire industries of people who can’t practice their livelihoods. Desperate refugees seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own. Political disruptions that could trigger multiple conflicts around the globe … On this issue, of all issues, there is such a thing as being too late. That moment is almost upon us.”

Acknowledging the relationship between our industrialized way of life and unsustainable use of fossil fuels, Obama’s comments implicitly reject the excitement around Arctic hydrocarbon extraction that accompanied estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey that the Arctic holds as much as 90 billion barrels of oil and 46 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, amounting to 13 percent and 30 percent of undiscovered global resources, respectively. Instead of as an energy resource province becoming available due to reduced summer sea ice, Obama positioned the Arctic as simultaneously the first victim of climate change and a harbinger of the world to come, specifying: “The Arctic is the leading edge of climate change—our leading indicator of what the entire planet faces.” His acceptance of the argument that some fossil fuel reserves must not be burnt thus has significant ecological and economic implications for the Arctic region.

While Obama has clearly embraced the security risks of climate change, his administration’s record on climate and energy policy remains mixed. Joining the global fight against climate change while promoting an “all of the above” energy policy represents a paradox of climate and energy security. The White House touts its success in promoting renewable energy, particularly the tripling of U.S. wind power and a 30-fold increase in U.S. solar energy production. But renewables remain a small part of the overall U.S. energy mix, comprising only 13 percent of electricity production. And while total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 had declined by 9 percent since 2005, this still represents a 6 percent increase over 1990 levels. Coal use has declined substantially as a result of Obama’s environmental regulations, but the Energy Information Agency reports that 81.5 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2015 came from fossil fuels, with an estimated decline of only a few percentage points by 2040. Production of hydraulically fractured shale gas has increased from 1 percent of natural gas production in 2000 to over 20 percent in 2010, and is expected to comprise 46 percent of U.S. natural gas supply by 2035. Thus, policy priorities around climate change and energy production remain in contrast, as the goal of radically reducing U.S. carbon output competes with the economic incentives to produce and consume fossil fuels. 

The American economy is still reliant on fossil fuels, and achieving a low-carbon society will require far-reaching systemic change. The implementation of contradictory policies underscores the largely rhetorical nature of any high-level claim to promoting de-carbonization, as well as the challenge of designating specific deposits of fossil fuels that should remain in the ground. For instance, in December 2015 President Obama signed the Paris Agreement on climate change that commits parties to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, just days before he signed legislation that lifted the 40-year ban on U.S. crude oil exports. In March 2016, his administration also reversed a proposed policy that would have lifted a ban on offshore drilling on parts of the U.S. Atlantic coast, while allowing no new drilling on the Pacific or Arctic coasts. These examples illustrate that even when a sitting president accepts that Arctic energy reserves should remain undeveloped, this may not translate into a prohibition on offshore development of Arctic hydrocarbons. Obama has demonstrated the greatest commitment of any president to fighting climate change and weaning the United States from fossil fuels, but the promotion of domestic hydrocarbons to support the domestic economy and reduce dependence on foreign oil has been an unavoidable imperative of his office.

Having specified that addressing the impacts of climate change and improving economic conditions for Arctic communities are priorities for the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship, can these be reconciled with the administration’s concurrent policy choices? Climate change in the Arctic is fundamentally challenging existing configurations of human life. This problem is directly driven by the use of fossil fuels, but in addition to being a high-consuming energy region per capita, the Arctic is also an exporter of hydrocarbons, and the fossil fuel industry is central to the economic well-being of Arctic communities. If all remaining Arctic resources must go unburned in order to avoid catastrophic climate change on a global level, therefore, it will come at a cost to the very people who will benefit most from a stable climate. On the other hand, the expansion of fossil fuel-based extraction elsewhere in the world comes at the direct expense of people in the Arctic and elsewhere experiencing acute environmental changes. While U.S. leadership on climate change under President Obama is stronger than any previous president, the tension between climate and energy security remains an unresolved paradox in government policy.

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Wilfrid Greaves is a lecturer at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict and Justice. His research examines security in the circumpolar Arctic, as well as natural resource extraction, climate change, and Canadian foreign policy. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto.

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State]

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